Norway has become the first country to come forward and commit to resettle a big number of African refugees and asylum seekers currently in Rwanda but the screening process might take a little while before the first batch leaves the country.
The Norwegian Minister of Justice and Immigration, Jøran Kallmyr, on Monday visited Gashora Emergence Transit Centre, in Bugesera District, which is currently hosting 299 refugees and asylum seekers evacuated from Libya last year under the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) framework by the African Union (AU), United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Government of Rwanda.
Under the arrangement, Norway has accepted to take in 450 refugees and asylum seekers from Gashora and another 150 Congolese refugees currently living in different camps in Rwanda but Minister Kallmyr said that only genuine refugees and asylum seekers will be resettled, with vulnerable families getting the first priority but not economic refugees.
Despite political turmoil back home which saw Norway’s government lose its majority after the right-wing Progress Party announced it was quitting the coalition over the repatriation of a suspected member of the Islamic State, Kallymr said plans are underway for Norway to share the refugee burden with Rwanda.
“I want to appreciate the Government of Rwanda for the initiative. It is a country trying to solve African problems on African soil and I think that is very positive. That is why Norway came out to support this initiative,”
“We are paying half of the expenses in the camps and we are going to continue to support this initiative. We are going to let some of them come to Norway,” Kallymr said, adding that at least 600 will be resettled in the Scandinavian country.
Though there are no timelines set, relocation of the refugees and asylum seekers may take a while because of the screening exercise to ensure that only genuine refugees and asylum seekers are resettled to the European country, but not ‘economic refugees’, according to Kallymr.
Currently there are 299 African refugees and asylum seekers in Gashora, mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somali, South Sudan and Sudan. They were 306 from two evacuations last year but Sweden has already relocated 7.
According to the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Emergency Management Olivier Rugina Kayumba, more refugees are expected as soon as the construction of more facilities at the camp by UNHCR is complete in the coming months.
However the relocation exercise could take more months, according to Kallymr because the screening exercise will be a rigorous one, to ensure that only the most vulnerable groups are resettled in Europe, while economic immigrants will have to be sent back to their home countries.
Kallymr said that Europe wants to ensure that it does not encourage people to risk their lives on dangerous routes through desserts and the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to get to Europe.
He said that Europe supports efforts to make sure that people remain in their respective countries and migrate through known legal processes.
He said that currently there are about 40, 000 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya who all want to be relocated to Europe but there is no chance that all of them will be resettled. Majority of them are economic immigrants.
Life in conflict-plagued Libya is said to be dangerous for the African immigrants who are jailed and subjected to inhuman conditions in the North African country.
In 2017, President Paul Kagame said that Rwanda would be willing to taken in at least 30, 000 on a temporary basis as AU and the international community look for permanent solutions.
The ETM Centre at Gashora will be upgraded to host at least 500 at any given time, with more coming in as others are resettled.
Minister Kallymr, who is a member of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government which risks a collapse following the political fallout in Norway on Monday, said that his country would consider taking whole families to avoid future challenges of other ‘relatives’ purporting to want to join their relatives in the Scandinavian country.
“We are only taking real refugees, who cannot return back to their countries of origin because then they will be illegally prosecuted and inhumanly treated. It is good that Rwanda is taking in those who are most vulnerable and the ones in the most need of protection,”
“We can then sort out the assessment here on the African soil instead of taking them to Europe and trying to get most of them back to Africa,” he said, denying that Europe is not paying countries like Rwanda and Niger to take in the refugees and asylum seekers, distancing itself from the crisis in the process.
He said Europe is supporting efforts to ensure that the refugee and immigrant crisis is dealt with on African soil while offering to resettle the most vulnerable but taking all of them would send a wrong message and encourage more to risk their lives to try and get to Europe.
In December last year, the European Union adopted additional funding worth €275 million from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for programmes in the Horn of Africa and in the Sahel and Lake Chad region that support regional stability and local communities and assist migrants and refugees.
The initiative is aimed at ensuring that people don’t leave their countries in search for a better life in Europe, in doing so risking their lives in the Sahara desert, get caught in conflict or perish in the Mediterranean Sea.
“We want to send a message ‘don’t try to come to Europe on your own’. Do it through the United Nations because then we will sort out who is most vulnerable, who is in need of protection,” Kallymr said, adding that the tough stance is to ensure that more people don’t risk their lives in the desert and on sea.
He said some countries like Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and others have offered to take in more refugees and immigrants but through the right channels facilitated by UNHCR.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
As it stands, majority of the refugees and asylum seekers risk losing the opportunity to be relocated and fear that if the screening exercise involves officials from their respective countries of origin, they might be denied the opportunity.
One of the refugees who spoke to KT Press on condition of anonymity said that the screening exercise might be sabotaged by their home governments if they are involved to verify their cases.
Minister Kallymr said that ‘economic refugees’ will not be resettled, adding that the screening exercise done in partnership with UNHCR will include “their own people” to ascertain if indeed they fled for genuine reasons.
“You cannot ask the same people we ran away from to confirm that we ran away from them. They will say they are lying,” the 28 year old said, adding that currently they don’t know their fate.
Rwanda has also offered to formalise the process for those who would be willing to stay in the country but majority in Gashora, if not all, say they want to go to Europe. They also say they don’t want to go back to their home countries because they will be persecuted.
In Gashora, though life has tremendously changed, majority look impatient. They can’t wait to get to Europe. The good food, the games at their disposal, the health facilities, a peaceful environment, and shelter, all of which they lacked in Libya, nearly means nothing to them.
“We just want to go to Europe,” one of the males playing a game of pool said. The impatience can be seen in their anger. They turned down interviews. “We don’t speak English” majority said, even turning down the option of translation.
There has been reports of unrest within the camps, Eritreans facing off with Somalis and Ethiopians, sometimes requiring security forces to intervene. One of the workers at the centre said that “they are hell bent on going to Europe”.
PS Kayumba said that they ought to understand that it is process which follows certain procedures. It is also said that some have refused to participate in some of the activities at the centre like learning languages, all which point to their impatience.
“They ought to know that this is a process that takes a while. They have to wait. We can’t tell them they will go in month. That is not our role. It will entirely depend on the countries that are willing to take them in,”
“Ours is to make sure that they are ok, they are recovering well and that they acquire some skills while here and the freedom to explore around, until the opportunity for resettlement materialises,” Kayumba said.
Minister Kallymr said that the most important thing is that they are in Rwanda and they are safe, regardless of how long it might take to resettle all of them.
“We have our methods, UNCR has its own methods, we are going to send their own people down here at some point to do the second screening,” he said, adding that those who will purport to be genuine refugees and asylum seekers will be detected.
“They will have to fulfil all the conditions,” Kallymr said, adding that the most important thing is that they are safe at the moment.
“We really want to thank Rwanda once again for making their lives safe. All my appreciation goes to Rwanda for doing this fantastic job,” he said.
He spent almost an hour talking to the unaccompanied children, after which he said that the ordeals of the young children are traumatic, which is why Norway cannot intervene in a manner that encourages more smuggling and movement of immigrants and refugees through dangerous routes.
Norway has contributed €20m to the African emergency basket fund to deal with the refugee crisis.